Please, Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas
He Wears a Crown of Hamster Bones and He Kills People
By Olive Hunter (not her real name)
My dad married Kathy sometime during my sophomore year in college. He appeared constipated the entire day, and in every wedding picture he looks less like a newlywed than like a monkey baring his teeth before a battle. Given that my mom had recently married Bill, a con artist and swindler who used "party" as a verb and drove my mom into bankruptcy, I knew that the year would be about as much fun as the time I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom closet for 12 hours with the cat's litter box.
On Christmas Eve of that next year, I arrived at my dad's suburban home where I was greeted by his eight-year-old stepson, Robert. "Oh, it's only you," he said. "I thought you were the hamster massacre-ist." He let out an exaggerated sigh and fell into a heap on the entryway floor.
I knew I shouldn't ask, which is precisely why I did. "What is a hamster massacre-ist, Robert?" I thought that by using his name, the question took on the wearily sophisticated tone of a Salinger story, as if I was conversing with a precocious eight-year-old about why fossil fuels were bad for the environment.
He jumped up from the floor and I noticed that his newly shaven head was full of fresh nicks and chunks of long hairs. A home job, I would later learn, which he'd done using his mom's disposable Lady Remington. "The hamster massacre-ist comes on Christmas Eve," he informed me. "He wears a crown of hamster bones and a belt of hamster bladders, and he enters houses and kills people!" Robert tossed his patchwork head back and laughed maniacally. "He's coming here tonight. For you and your dad!" I didn't bother asking Robert if he still believed in Santa.
Kathy walked down the stairs, the banister of which was draped in garland and red bows. She held a full glass of eggnog and wore a giant plastic bell as a necklace. She looked like an anorexic version of Dinah Shore. Kathy always was perky and upbeat. I was waiting for the moment she'd crack like one of her fake nails, revealing the brittle and bitten-down nubs underneath.
She was probably the only person, other than me, who understood my father. She'd call his name from the kitchen and shout, "I love you!" as if she thought he was sitting in the bedroom staring at the stock ticker on MSNBC and wondering if anyone really loved him. Truth is, he probably was.
"Come in the great room and talk to Mama Sis!" she said. In Kathy's world, the living room was called the "great room." And because she was only 15 years older than I was, she wanted me to use her self-spun nickname, which I refused to do.
"Okay, we've got to talk," she said, whispering and grabbing my arm as if she was about to tell me whom we should elect for homecoming court. "We had a few 'incidents' last night and today. We found out Amanda's pregnant. And Robert's not taking it too well. Hell, no one is." Amanda, her daughter, was 15. "Can you believe it? Mama Sis is going to be a grandma!?"
No. And I couldn't believe she was so freaking giddy about it.
"Anyway, last night was all about the Amanda drama and now Robert's trying to get attention. I found him in my room today totally passed out in my clothes and makeup. He gets like that with the Ritalin and all--he just falls asleep wherever. But I don't understand why he was in a dress and makeup."
I shrugged and said the first thing that came to mind. "Maybe he thought that if he dressed like a woman he'd get pregnant, too."
This pissed off Mama Sis. But I thought a young-male immaculate conception sounded like a true modern-day Christmas miracle.
At this point I figured I had three choices: Go to my mom's a day early, drive the two hours back to school and spend Christmas with a bunch of equally miserable locals in a bar, or sleep over at my dad's and possibly get murdered by a bald hamster massacre-ist wearing a navy dress from Talbot's.
"You might want to wait and come over Christmas morning when we know Bill will be gone," my mom told me over the phone. "He'll be back soon, and I know he's been with that Leon. Who knows what kind of shape he'll be in."
"That Leon" was Leon Spinks, the former heavyweight boxing champion. The previous summer, Bill had bought a teal-blue Camaro and personalized the license plate with "Gambler." My mom's evangelical neighbors, who washed their lawn with Palmolive and a scrub brush if a rabbit jumped across it, wouldn't even look at her after that thing landed in our driveway. Sometime after Bill was carried into a time warp on the Pegasus wings of a Steve Miller Band album, he befriended Leon Spinks.
"It's disgusting," my mom said, like she was talking about a scandal at the country club. She secretly was hoarding money and counting the days until she could leave the Gambler. "That Leon," according to rumor, had sold his gold belt for crack. I wondered if Bill had sold his crack to get a display case for Leon's gold belt. This, I thought, would be a beautiful, modern-day version of "The Gift of the Magi." Crackless Bill and Beltless Leon would realize that the true meaning of Christmas wasn't about the gifts, but the illegal activities you do to get them.
The presents I unwrapped that year included domestic items from around my mom's house, since all of her money was going to the Leave Bill Fund. I got a set of steak knives, the ones my parents had received as a wedding present and used every Friday of the summer when my dad would barbecue, as well as salt-and-pepper shakers, place mats, and potholders. As for Kathy, she gave me a handmade monogrammed robe. It came in a teeny jewelry box in the form of a picture from a magazine. "That's the robe I'm making for you," she said.
She never sewed the robe--at least I never got it. But I still have the steak knives; I use them all the time. The wood handles have rotted out, though, and in the last few months, I've wrapped the ends with tape. I'm trying to keep them from falling apart.
The Thorazine Helped My Brother Put on 30 Pounds
By Rhys Anderson (not her real name)
"You might want to prepare yourself," my father was telling me by phone from California. "His forehead is rather large."
I was 3,000 miles away at college in Pennsylvania, speaking over the communal dorm phone. In 1993 there were no cell phones on college campuses; my school didn't even have individual lines. We all heard each other's breakups and meltdowns, the lies we told our parents. In this fashion, my roommates had been within earshot two months previously when my parents called to say they'd placed my younger brother in an inpatient psychiatric treatment facility.
I remember feeling complete disbelief. When I'd left for school, my brother was a skinny, punky, irritating little piece of shit who ran cross-country with me and had a tendency to pick fights with my friends. If my older brother had a don't ask/don't tell policy about my private affairs, Tim had an ask-and-tell policy. He was constantly getting me grounded and when I left for college, I did not much think I would miss him.
The next time I saw him, that Thanksgiving, at a family powwow in New York, he had dreadlocks and a 10-mile stare. He laughed to himself almost constantly and had a tendency to leave the table. Occasionally he would walk up to me and stand very close and repeat gibberish in my face. The scary thing was that it always sounded just enough like me to make me realize he had been listening and was mocking me. I was a fraud and even though he was crazy, he knew it.
Anyway, I came home expecting more of the same, but what I got was worse. Over the last month, the Thorazine had helped him put on 30 pounds, maybe more, and a lot of it, by all appearances, really had gone to his forehead. The physical change made him seem shifty and mean. He caught me staring once or twice and he began to taunt me with his belly: rolling up his shirt and shoving it in front of my face as I ate my cereal.
And so the Christmas that was supposed to be a coming together felt like a shipwreck. My father continued to work late, my older brother took Tim's medicine to see how it felt, and I went for 18- and 20-mile runs in the dry, 40-degree Sacramento winter. Oh, and my mom cried a lot.
I stole my Christmas presents that year. Not sure why. I got away with it, though, and remember the surprise when my older brother unwrapped an entire set of the City Lights pocket poets. "Just what we need," my dad said, "more druggy poetry." Tim giggled his way through the proceedings.
I remember that Christmas feeling that emotion Tim had always been so good at provoking--irritation. Only this year it was warmed over with guilt. He was schizophrenic and it wasn't his fault. Still, we couldn't help pitying ourselves for being plagued with him. A year earlier, Tim had been the 14-year-old who woke up early for Christmas and dragged everyone down to the tree. Mostly because he wanted to hurry up and open his presents. Now, he had dragged us all back to California for a Christmas crisis, and this time, none of us felt like celebrating.
Kill Them with Kindness
By Beth Hawkins
When I was 12, I signed on to deliver the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press, a rite of passage for kids at the time. Someone at the paper told me to show up at an organizing meeting in the basement of the local Catholic church. There, I was presented a white canvas shoulder bag with a bright orange strap and the names of the papers (younger readers may not recall that there were still two, each with an afternoon and evening edition) spelled out in raised, glittery script. I was also handed a route list consisting of four blocks starting on St. Clair Avenue and finishing on a steep grade rolling south toward what is now Interstate 35E.
I was terribly full of myself, made my mother take my picture while I was draped in the bag, even. Although, truth be told, it was a rotten way to make money. And even if it hadn't been, I was a pretty bad papergirl. I did all right with the afternoon papers but I had a hard time getting up early enough to make my morning deliveries. More crucial, I was terrible at collecting from customers. (Younger readers may not realize that newspapers used to leave billing to carriers, who, as the most poorly paid independent contractors this side of Bangladesh, in turn paid the paper for the papers they "bought" and "resold." Fail to collect from a customer or two and you'd toiled that month in vain.)
My final, fatal flaw, though, was a lack of grit. I wasn't strong enough to wheel the fat Sunday papers up and down the hill with the two-wheeled cart my dad had built me. Instead of toughing it out, or, obviously and sensibly, splitting the bundles up, I procrastinated and futzed and generally managed to make a 20-minute task take an hour or more. Once I fell asleep in the courtyard of the apartment building that marked the halfway point on the short route. Like the family of moles in the Christmas story my mom would read every year, I was mighty surprised to wake up and find that I'd not been eaten.
That apartment building was home to my nemesis, a crabby, nasty, mean old lady who, it seemed to me, had very little to do but find fault with the way I delivered her paper 13 times a week. She called my house constantly--sometimes about both the morning and afternoon papers. Her business section was missing; her paper was wet; I was late; I'd failed to leave the paper directly in front of her door. And where was the Dayton's sale circular? The only time the woman wasn't in my face was when I went to collect. On those days, she couldn't be bothered to answer her door.
My ever-practical mother urged me to see Mrs. Cratchit as lonely and frustrated and on the losing end of what was certainly a life of bitter disappointment. Of course, I couldn't.
On Christmas Eve one year, she called just as my mother, brother, and I were getting ready for bed--well after 10 o'clock, anyhow. Mom gathered up the sections of our own paper, reassembled them, and pressed them flat and smooth. "We're going to fix that witch once and for all," she said. "We're going to kill her with kindness." Emphasis on the "kill."
Mom loaded a plate with Christmas cookies and used the kitchen scissors to curl the red ribbon she tied around the Saran Wrap. Jammies and all, we piled in the car and drove over to the apartment building. I carried the paper and my mother the cookies. On the ride over, Mom prepped my brother and me to start singing when Crabby Lady opened her door.
We made it just four or five words into "Silent Night" before the old lady snatched the paper and the cookies and, wordlessly, slammed the door. She never complained again.
A Good Marine Needs Solid Abs
By Quinton Skinner
A top-notch mix of unabashed materialism and good-hearted naïveté makes Los Angeles one of my favorite places to spend the holidays. Perfect skies (ambient color is better there), trips to the ocean, nerve-wracking conversations about property values--they all outweigh the sentimental value of spending Christmas in the gray and depressing environs of my Ohio youth. The year my wife and I traveled to SoCal for the holidays was cause for tempered optimism. Sure, it was inevitable that at some point I was going to feel as though my brain had been scooped out and replaced with cotton, but I had reason to hope that the proceedings wouldn't be outright painful.
After the initial round of visits and some obligatory last-minute consumerism, I found myself in my father-in-law's living room watching TV alone. The exact program I was perusing has been lost in the fallout from the trauma that ensued, but the pertinent fact is that it had to do with Marines going through basic training. A good Marine needs solid abdominal muscles (gun toting, grenade lobbing), and I watched with growing interest as the soldiers did this sort of scissors kick, lying on their backs on the ground with their feet in the air.
Did I have Marine-worthy abs? Surely not. I stewed in my chair for a while, feeling increasingly old and out of shape as I watched those outrageously lucky soldiers. Getting in shape on Uncle Sam's dime, what a racket! I promptly hit the floor and began to reproduce the scissors kick I had seen on the tube, gamely contracting my gut with my legs flailing away.
Then it happened. I felt an ominous pop, then a searing flash of pain around my tailbone. I yelped and my feet hit the ground. It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and I had just managed to inflict an undetermined amount of damage upon my lower back. As I stood up, it became apparent that the pain wasn't going away. In fact, it expanded and intensified, as though chiding me for doubting it meant business.
I am admittedly not in the class of Spartan warriors when it comes to pain tolerance. I have been known to complain; put another way, I'm a complainer. But this was no torqued neck or aching knee. Walking caused me extreme pain; doing nothing at all caused me extreme pain, too. Surely it would clear up, though. A few hours, some sleep, and a hot bath and I'd be fine.
It stiffened up during the night. I emerged in the morning with the gait of an 80-year-old. Obviously devising a strategy was in order. Two choices presented themselves: find a doctor (damn the insurance issues) or hit the sauce. I opted for the latter and by afternoon I had transformed myself into a Dickensian nightmare: hunched, squinting, half-crazed, drunk, and increasingly bitter about my plight. Shifting on the couch sent spikes of pain down my legs, and when standing was out of the question I opted for a brooding slouch. Cries of pain upon accepting presents, I subsequently discovered, reduce one's appearance of gratitude.
But I didn't want gifts. I wanted to be euthanized. When asked how I'd hurt myself, I mumbled inanities about a workout mishap. Revealing that I had been reduced to this state because of my jealousy of boot camp Marines would have shattered whatever sympathy was left to me.
Lovely photos preserve an image from that year's Christmas: me, sitting on a couch with a waxy pallor and rings around my eyes, a queasy expression on my face and a big tumbler of scotch in my hand. It is an image of a man clearly unhinged, a man who has tangled with the wrong holiday.
All I Got Was a Bag of Nuts
By Jim Walsh
I've done the math. Counting parents, spouse, kids, siblings, in-laws, nieces, and nephews, I figure that on any given Christmas, my potential gift-getting tops out at 27. Subtract self-centered teens and toddlers, lobotomized sisters, and broke-ass brothers and it still comes in at double digits. So how is it that the grand total of my haul for the Christmas of 1999 was a bag of nuts?
My wife (speaking now from the next room, "who has given me many lovely presents over the years") has her alibi. Something to do with our son being three years old, our daughter being 15 months, and her working full-time and being "too busy" to get me anything. She apologized; I said it was no big deal. But do you know what an empty velvet stocking hanging on the wall feels like on Christmas morning? Flat.
This unfortunate series of events coincided that year with the brilliant idea on both sides of our family that we wouldn't exchange gifts. Instead, we decided to give money to a charity or something. Which was great, because at the same time some poor stranger was opening their special something, I was working on my thumb-twiddling.
Best of all, I didn't have to feign excitement, thank anybody, or hug a soul. Plus, I was able to avoid all those uncomfortable "I-love-you-I-was-thinking-about-you moments with the male members of the family. And, instead of wrecking the environment with all that excess wrapping paper and packaging, we got to sit back and watch the kids open their presents. It was very adult and grown-up, as if we'd graduated to a higher class of Christmas consciousness. I sat by the fire with a glass of wine, feeling totally gypped.
The only one who defied the no-gift rule that year was my mother-in-law, God bless her. She's old-school, so the idea of no gifts at Christmas struck her as nothing short of sacrilegious. Even though her budget is the most fixed of all, she gave everyone a small present. Nuts, to me. My one and only gift. Not that I'm keeping track.
Look, I watch The Grinch every year. I hear the preachers and teachers. I get it. 'Tis better to give than receive; the love you take is equal to the love you make; et cetera. But the truth is, I like getting presents: good ones, bad ones, regifts, anything.
Which is why I've made my peace with the nuts of '99, and have nothing but fond memories of them now. They were salty, mixed, and everything you could ask for. If you're a squirrel.
This year, there's been some loose talk of skipping Christmas dinner entirely and "just having hors d'oeuvres." Good idea. Less mess and work for all of us. Can I come to your house?
I Gah, I Gah-a Frow up Only There Ain't No More
By Matthew Wilder
Liesl was unusual. She was about 20 years old and spoke in the Locust Valley Lockjaw accent used on American sitcoms of the '60s to denote "out-of-sight rich person"--Thurston Howell and his crowd. She was a chorus girl in a production of Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights that I directed when I was 24, and she made herself known to the production staff as by far the best-looking chorine in a rubber swimsuit.
Warning sign number one: sounds of screaming and sobbing from the greenroom one afternoon. It turned out Liesl (which isn't her real name) had just seen My Own Private Idaho and was inconsolable--River Phoenix had died at the end. I presume at some point the other chorus members reassured her that, at that point, the real River was not, in fact, dead. Warning sign number two: After I got a mash note from Liesl in my mailbox and went to her apartment, I noted that her bedroom had only two kinds of books: Babar the Elephant stories and the diaries of Anais Nin.
There seemed to be no pilot light on inside Liesl, but sexually speaking she was a treat--kind of like finding a box of chocolates left behind in a hotel room by the previous guests. After a few brief encounters, the show opened and I discreetly--and perhaps not altogether kindly--moved on. I would no longer listen to Liesl reading aloud from her screenplay about an American girl touring Thailand and being molested by "her guest host."
Several years later, I was living in a ramshackle old house in San Diego with two friends, both playwrights--Jake, a hard-drinking Bukowskian, and Gareth, a sensitive-guy-of-the-'90s. Jake and I were plagued by Gareth. He thought nothing of picking up a guitar while Jake was in the shower and serenading Jake's hyperluscious girlfriend with a soulful rendition of "Here Comes the Sun." He was Mr. Feeling, Mr. Understanding, Mr. Let Me Go Out and Buy You Some Pamprin--a sure bet that something sadistic was lurking underneath that shelfful of bell hooks books. And sure enough, on New Year's Eve of 1995, I found out what lay beneath.
Abandoned by my girlfriend--who was fucking a Swedish ski instructor in Sweden at the time--I spent the early part of the holiday in a German bratwurst joint listening to various hipster bands mock the lederhosened wait staff. Then, I figured, I'd take my friend Brent, an underappreciated grad-school actor, home, where no doubt Gareth had something exciting and decadent planned for our amusement.
What Gareth had planned, in fact, was a visit from a young woman now living in San Francisco who was sweet on him--a girl named Liesl. "Matt, you don't mind, do you?" he earnestly asked.
Young Brent and I passed a bottle of five-dollar André Champagne back and forth as Gareth knelt before the fire, twanging out "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" on acoustic guitar as Liesl rubbed his knees, shooting me curare darts with her eyes. Meanwhile, Tabitha, an aspiring director, also tried to make time with Gareth. A nondrinker, Tabitha got boozier as the evening went on. Liesl went from knee rubbing to full-on dry humping. Tabitha worked toward a trio con brio, but wasn't managing to cut in on the Gareth-Liesl action.
Gareth had forgotten to pay the cable so even the TV was dead. No Dick Clark to distract me and my actor friend tonight.
Another bottle of André went ker-pop. The trio headed for the bedroom. The comical sound of ratcheting bedsprings was matched by the childlike yelp of Liesl's orgasms--suddenly I remembered whole lines of Anais Nin! Eventually, this sound was matched by the canine rumble coming out of Tabitha, who emerged from the bedroom on hands and knees, senselessly crawling toward the fireplace.
"I gah, I gah-a frow up, only there ain' no more," Tabitha burped, then went into one, two, maybe ten bouts of dry-heave hysterics.
"Why do people not like me?" Tabitha asked, crawling back to what was now a closed and locked bedroom door. More bedsprings, more yelping.
Young Brent turned to me with woozy eyes. "Why do you think it is," he asked, "that we can't pass out?"
A friend reports that Liesl is now a licensed family therapist in Marin, specializing in cases of sexual abuse.
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